The Amateur American Hobo: Palm Springs, CA to Oakland, CA (Part XI)

by macksemil

A warm desert night closing in and the two days of sleep deprivation from the Greyhound wearing on us, we set out to find a place to sleep in Palm Springs. Walking the nearly deserted streets Bob and I found a large dirt lot across the railroad tracks that looked dark and inconspicuous. Near the eastern end of the lot were stacks of giant cement pipes that looked like a good place to roll out for the night. Spotlights in the distance and the echoes of amplified music told us that the Coachella music festival was in full swing not far away. A gruff “Can I help you?” erupted from one of the tubes as I started to climb in. We weren’t the only ones who thought they were a good place to hide out for the night. I don’t generally like to sleep in proximity to people I don’t know on the road, so Bob and I abandoned the idea of sleeping in the pipes and set out in search of another place. Soon we found another vacant lot next to a mini mart, and a hollowed out space under a clump of small trees that kept us out of sight of the road. The area didn’t have any signs of recent residents so we rolled out our sleeping bags, bought some beer from the mini mart and retired to our cozy tree-tent for the night.

The morning was bright and sunny, after a quick breakfast from the mini mart Bob and I packed up our gear and headed off to find Max. We walked across town to his mom’s apartment, set our gear down, took showers and used his internet connection to send some e-mails to family and friends. In the afternoon Max showed us around the town. After getting hit up for “uppers” by a guy in a SUV on the side of the street we walked to Max’s school and climbed the date trees for a snack. By the time we got back to the apartment we were dying from the heat, so we took a dip in the swimming pool. The next day was Halloween and some of Max’s friends had invited us to a party. We threw together some makeshift costumes and spent the night bullshitting around a poker game and enjoying some drinks.  The three of us slept on top of the back pool house inside of the walled compound. After we struggled through headaches enough to get out of bed we ate a breakfast of oranges from a tree then walked back to Max’s apartment. We thanked Max for a great time, said our goodbyes and connected with my old room mates from Eugene, Griff and Evan, to get a ride over to the coastline with them on their way back to L.A. from Coachella.

We spent the car ride going over stories from our travels and listening to how life in Los Angeles was going for Griff and Evan. Due to an already strained living arrangement they couldn’t offer us a place to stay but offered to drive us north of town to a beach outside of Malibu where we could hitch hike on the 101 up the coast in the morning. Once Griff navigated the spiderweb highways of LA we had some beers on the beach and watched the sun set before saying goodbye. As the night fell further Bob and I shouldered our packs and walked down the beach looking for a place to sleep until we saw a lifeguard tower. Thinking that the balcony of the tower would make for a good sleeping platform, we climbed the stairs and investigated. It was narrow and fairly visible. Thinking it more than likely that sleeping on a lifeguard tower was illegal in Malibu, we formed an alternate plan of scaling to the roof of the tower. First Bob went up without a hitch. After passing the backpacks up I followed. Bob has always been better at climbing things than me, but I managed to scramble up with leaving only a few footprints on the wall and incurring only a few scrapes on my elbows. Bob and I rolled out the sleeping gear and drifted quickly off to sleep, only to be woken up a few hours later by a few drunk folks who also thought that the balcony of the lifeguard tower was a nice place to spend some time. Fortunately, they left after a while and my sleep was undisturbed until the sun weakly penetrated the morning fog some hours later.

Bob and I woke up with the sun, had a quick breakfast from our packs and dismounted from our perch overlooking the beach. We walked the short distance to Highway 101, crossed the road, and stuck out our thumbs. At such an early hour there wasn’t much traffic, but after a little while a surfer in an SUV pulled over on the other side of the road and called us over. He wasn’t headed north, but told us that the place we were at was no good and he’d take us to a better place to wait. The “better place” ended up being back to Malibu at the fanciest Chevron station that I’ve ever seen. We stood for a few hours at our new, “better”, spot as the fog burned off and the sweet California sunshine warmed the morning air.

Finally, a guy in a small beige car pulled over and told us that he’d give us a ride north to the county line, which ended up being roughly where we had started from three hours earlier. Our hitch hiking for the day hadn’t taken us very far but we remained optimistic, having met a few friendly folks and happy to be back on the west coast. Within an hour, an unmarked bread truck pulled over and waved at us. Bob and I walked up to the cab to meet the two stereotypical southern California stoner dudes that were driving the beast. No shoes, no shirts, sunglasses and ratty long blonde hair. They told us they were headed to Ventura, about an hour up the road, and we could hop in the back of the truck next to the antique stove they were hauling. The sliding door shut behind us, and we sat down on our packs for the ride. In five minutes a series of sharp explosions erupted very nearby. I hit the floor and covered my head, thinking the vehicle was under gunfire. The van slowed and pulled to the side of the road. Our drivers came back to tell us that the truck ran on propane and that they were very low on fuel, so the engine was backfiring. When this happened, every ten minutes or so, we pulled over and wait for the beast to calm down before proceeding. The other interesting thing about the ride in the bread truck was the pinhole projection effect provided by the numerous small holes in the walls of the truck. Inverted images of the roadside scenes we passed by were projected on the opposing walls of the container so we could watch what was happening outside. All of this combined produced an occasionally frightening, somewhat wondrous nap-chamber for the hour and a half or so it took to get to Ventura, where we de-trucked and thanked our drivers for the ride.

We didn’t end up spending any time in Ventura, just enough to walk to the other side of the highway onramp. We waited only a short while for another ride to come along. The ride must have been uneventful, because neither Bob or I can recall anything about it. Soon we were dropped off in Santa Barbara and decided to camp out there for the evening. We spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering around, once passing a homebum camp in the bushes by the freeway complete with a surfboard. We walked to the grocery stores up the busy street to restock on food items and buy a bottle of hooch for the evening. At the register we were denied our booze because Bob was using his passport for ID. We argued that a passport was a more legit form of identification than a state driver’s license but our appeal fell on deaf ears as we learned that it was Albertson’s company policy not to accept a passport as valid identification. I went, alone, into another nearby store and bought a bottle of booze for us to sip on that evening. Bob and I wandered around aimlessly for a mile or two looking for a place to rest for the evening. Just as it was getting dark and foggy we came across a walking path next to a hill. When the trees cleared a bit we climbed up the little incline and found ourselves along another path which ran between the backs of a series of fences and a band of trees. The flat areas along the edge of the path had a thick lining of fallen leaves which served as a nice mattress for the evening. We woke shortly after sunrise, the fog still hanging in the air. Young, fit joggers were passing within feet of our sleeping area so we packed up early, ate a quick snack and walked back to the highway to head further north along highway 101.

The clouds hung low in the sky on this day, but soon enough a guy in a big green truck pulled over and waved us up to the cab. He was headed north and then east, but would drop us off more than halfway to San Louis Obispo some 40 miles up the road. At a tiny onramp next to a gas station on the outskirts of a town called Santa Maria we climbed out of the truck cab, thanked the driver and walked toward the sign pointing to San Louis Obispo. There we waited for two hours until a small blue sedan pulled over on the shoulder. The girl driving, Shannon was cheery and told us she was going to SLO, but on the way she decided to show us around the coastline since she didn’t have anything better to do that day. The conversation flowed as she told us about her family and friends in the area, and what living there was like. Shannon took us to the Montana del Oro State Park on the coast where we all walked on the beach and climbed the rocks. There were interesting sculptures in the sand on the ocean-facing side. The clouds still hung in the sky but the air was still and comfortable. The ocean was a tranquil, steely blue which faded into the clouds at the horizon.

Shannon decided that she wanted to help us along in our journey further, so once we were done at the beach we headed north along beautiful Morro Bay and up the coast for another hour into Big Sur. Bob and I hadn’t slept much in the past few nights so we abandoned our driver at moments when we were overcome by sleep on the windy road. After each brief nap I would wake up and mutter some sort of an apology through the sleep-induced mental fog before my head dropped again and I was away in a nap once more. Finally, we reached a small gravel parking lot on the side of the road where we all stretched our legs outside of the car. Shannon wished us luck on the rest of our journey. Bob and I thanked her for going so far out of her way to show us around the coast, and then she departed south back toward San Louis Obisbo. There we stood on the side of a remote stretch of highway 101, outside the front gate of the Henry Miller Memorial Library.

The Henry Miller Memorial Library is in what used to be Henry Miller’s house. Once he tired of the bustling New York City and Paris lifestyles, Miller moved to a quiet home on the coast in Big Sur. This is where he wrote The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Big Sur and the Oranges of HieronymusBosh,The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy and many others. The house was small and had been turned into a book store. Most of the books were overpriced but interesting. The bathroom was the most authentic part of the house, it had been preserved in the state that Miller kept it while he lived there as it was his favorite place in the house. There was a giant, fluffy cat that bit Bob on the nose when he tried to pick it up. Sculptures lined the walkways and borders of the property, a stage took up the corner of the yard inside the fence. Coffee was by donation and was enjoyed liberally by the baret-sporting museum visitors.  The free computer on the back deck let Bob and I reconnect with friends and family back home again before we shouldered our packs once again and walked up the highway to look for a good spot to hitch hike from.

After traversing a few curves in the road that left us terrifyingly close to passing trucks we arrived in the parking lot of an upscale restaurant located on an outcropping of hillside with an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean far below. On the North edge of the hillside was a bus stop with a schedule attached. We discovered that a bus would be stopping close after sunset and going into Moterey. Since the place we had found was a beautiful, we decided to catch the last bus into town and stay put for the sunset. Bob and I sauntered up the steps of the fancy establishment, hoping to sit on the patio and enjoy the cheapest beer on the menu for the sunset but were disappointed to read that even Budweiser was eight dollars. Dejectedly, we walked back South along the highway with no beer, and watched the sunset from the other side of a fence with an attached “No Trespassing” sign on a small grass outcropping. We looked in the area for places to camp, but everything in sight was on a steep slope and we didn’t have enough daylight to explore the area for a flat spot that wasn’t in view of the highway.

Returning to the bus stop in the fading light we realized that we had missed the small note at the bottom of the bus schedule that informed would-be riders that the bus only operated seasonally. Since November isn’t tourist season in Big Sur, we were stuck. We hoofed it back to the Henry Miller Museum to ask if the guy working the counter in the bookshop was headed up North after his shift. He informed us that he was headed that way, but not very far, and that we would have better luck trying to thumb a ride from the parking lot of a small convenience store just past the bus stop. The guy told us he would stop by and pick us up if we were still stuck when he got done closing the place up for the night. Bob and I left the Memorial Library once again and headed back up Highway 1 toward the store.

We eventually arrived at the shabby little one-room establishment that luckily carried some beef jerky for us to nourish ourselves on in the falling darkness as we waited for a kind soul to stop and take us to Monterey. This seemed unlikely; Bob and I imagined ourselves camped out in the parking lot of the store until the sun rose again. However, within twenty minutes an old white town car pulled over into the lot and we were soon on the road leaving Big Sur. After an hour of strained conversation attempts due to our driver’s inability to speak English and our inability to speak Spanish we were entering the outskirts of Monterey. Though our driver didn’t understand the idea that we wouldn’t have a particular destination to be dropped off at, he did understand that letting us off close to downtown was acceptable and wished us luck as we got out of the car. Bob and I read the tourist maps on the downtown streets and determined that we would continue our literary tour of the central Californian coastline by visiting Cannery Row. We leisurely meandered along the marina, stopping for a smoke in an outcrop of rocks along the way. After winding through a few streets we entered the legendary avenue at it’s northern terminus.

At few blocks into Cannery Row we found a cheap burger place for a late dinner. The food wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible. We would find that at 6$ a plate it was the cheapest thing in the area. As we progressed down the famous boulevard we realized that it had been developed into the complete antithesis of what it had been immortalized as in Steinbeck’s novel. Once a rough-and-tubmle seafarer’s shantytown, the Cannery Row of today is a cut-and-paste collection of themed malls and attractions. No Palace Flophouse, no Doc’s lab, no gangs of wandering sailors and cannery workers. We did what we could to make up the difference by buying 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor at the run-down supermarket up the hill and squatting for the night in the foundation of an old boarding house for Chinese cannery workers at a small beach left free from development. Disappointed that the veritable hobo wonderland of Steinbeck’s novel had been so neglected we felt it our duty to be the resident drunk loafers for the evening. And although we do feel we made Steinbeck proud, it suited us just fine. To be honest it was par for our course anyway.

When I eventually woke, I was treated to calm morning and welcomed the familiar smell of the ocean. Seagulls floated lazily around the cement foundation, calling incessantly. I got up, took a look around, drank some water, ate a little bit of food, sat and thought for a while, and finally resolved that Bob wasn’t going to get up on his own. A gentle nudge made him roll over and grunt. I let him doze for a while longer then administered a less gentle nudge which signaled that it was actually time to get moving again. Within the hour we were groggily wandering back into Monterey proper to continue our journey up the highway to Santa Cruz.

A long walk and a short ride with a local farmer traveling to a market landed us on an onramp in Moss Landing. After a decently long and unproductive wait we were reprimanded over the loudspeaker by a local cop for standing five feet beyond the “PEDESTRIANS PROHIBITED” sign. Satisfied with our new location ten feet in front of where we had been before we were warned that if he came back and we had moved beyond the sign again, he would write us tickets. Luckily we had a ride out of there shortly thereafter with a  cute young lady in a big old Chevy pickup. She dropped us off in Santa Cruz. I called up a friend of mine that I had done some hitch hiking with previously up in Oregon, Nick, and got walking directions to his house.

After a few days of visiting friends I had met on my first visit to Santa Cruz, catching up with Nick, lounging on the beach and waiting fruitlessly for the local freight from Santa Cruz to Davenport (which we later found out had been discontinued) we set out to the highway once more to continue Northward to the great Bay Area metropolis and visit our friend Beowulf. We stood at the north edge of town in the mild air for an hour before a very hip twenty-something guy in white-rimmed shades pulled over and told us he could take us partway up the road. He was on a mission to score some bud from some friends of his up North and was happy to have us along for the drive. About 20 miles later he dropped us at the side of the road as he headed into the residential area and wished us luck. The weather had gone from partly sunny to somewhat threatening, so Bob and I put on our sweatshirts and hats and stuck our thumbs out to the traffic passing by at full speed. About ten minutes later, our hip friend showed back up, unable to make his connection, and offered to take us another ways up the road where he would give it another shot. Another twenty miles and the episode repeated, with the sky greying further and beginning to mist on us as Bob and I donned our rain gear. Lucky for us, our driver’s local connection at this little town wasn’t home either, so we received our third successive ride from the same person in the same day.

We were dropped off just a few miles south of the edge of the city, near Linda Mar beach. The weather was starting to clear again, and within ten minutes we were picked up by a European businessman in a rented car who dropped us off in the heart of San Fransisco. After four days on the tranquil coastline the hustle and bustle of the city was a shock. Bob and I put our heads together and managed to weave our way through the public transportation system to the other side of the bay to Oakland. We boarded a bus to Vallejo, mistakenly believing that our friend lived in there. As it turned out, he only worked there and commuted from Oakland. Soon we returned to Oakland, a few dollars poorer, and walked to Beowulf’s house. That night we enjoyed good company, cheap beer and a restful night’s sleep indoors.